It was Emily Edelman’s twelfth birthday.
It was a fateful day.
Fateful because she was about to find something very rare and very powerful.
And that very rare and powerful something would launch Emily on a great adventure—?“great” in this case meaning “absurdly dangerous”—?that would profoundly change her life.
Most likely by . . . well . . . ending it. Horribly.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
At this point, Emily didn’t know about any of that.
What she did know was that it was a perfect day: The sky was perfectly blue, the sun perfectly warm, the clouds perfectly fluffy; the sand was perfectly soft, the ocean waves perfectly wave-y.
And she was in a perfectly awful, perfectly black mood.
Why? Where to start . . .
You could start with her big sister, Hilary, who was driving her insane. Or her obnoxious little brother, Dougie, who was driving her insaner, which Emily knew wasn’t a real word but felt accurate.
Or you could start with the fact that she’d been at her new school for only a week, and already everyone despised her. Especially some girl named Kristy Meyer, who was beautiful and popular and for some reason went out of her way to be mean to Emily.
“I’m pretty sure you’re imagining it,” said Mrs. Edelman, Emily’s mother.
Emily was pretty sure she wasn’t.
When her father had told her he’d been transferred and they were moving across the country, Emily said she didn’t want to move because she’d never see her friends again, and she liked where they lived, and it would be awful. But her father said, “Aw, c’mon! We’ll be living near the ocean! It will be fun! It will be an adventure!”
“I hate adventures,” Emily replied.
He said, “I’m pretty sure you don’t really mean that.”
Emily was pretty sure she did.
That was another thing that was driving her crazy: the way her parents were always so sure that Emily didn’t know anything, even the things that were going on inside her own head. Like she was still a baby. When Emily said she hated adventures, she knew what she was talking about.
Adventure, she had learned, was an adult code word that actually meant “disruption and discomfort and change,” none of which Emily was partial to. Last year in school the students had had to create personal profiles. Under hobbies Emily put hibernating and collecting rocks. Hibernating because Emily’s idea of an ideal evening was to wrap herself up in a cozy blanket and read a book (preferably one without too much adventure). Collecting rocks because she had a vague affection for geology: it was for the most part stable and slow-moving and trustworthy and comforting.
What else was bothering her? How about their new house, which turned out to be a very old house that made weird noises and smelled bad. “Doesn’t it have great character?” her mom kept repeating. “Doesn’t it?” Then got upset when Emily finally blurted, “Sure does! Old and smelly!”
Plus Emily got the worst bedroom, plus the box with her agate collection had gone missing in the move, plus her hamster had dropped dead right before they left, probably of a broken heart, and plus she didn’t even want to come to the beach today to celebrate her birthday. But what did her parents say? “Sure you do!”
Plus plus plus: The one gift she had asked for—?the one single thing—?she didn’t get. And why?
Because of her older sister, Hilary.
That was Hilary right now, sitting across from Emily on the picnic blanket, moaning piteously.
“Hilary,” said their mother sharply, “give me that phone!”
Mrs. Edelman put down her own phone so she could snatch the phone away from Hilary, who was futilely attempting to text, groaning in agony with each letter.
This was why Emily didn’t get the only thing she’d asked for.
A minor scuffle broke out as Mrs. Edelman tried to take the device, Hilary’s bejeweled phone case shedding rhinestones in the process. Six-year-old Dougie, momentarily distracted from scooping sand into Emily’s uneaten sandwich when she wasn’t looking, giggled.
“Give it to me!” said their mother to Hilary. “Where did you get it?!”
“But, Mommmmm,” moaned Hilary, who was fifteen, “I have to text Cassie because she’s breaking up with Kyle, and Jennie said she’s talking with Brad, and Kerry is—”
“I don’t care!” snapped their mother. “I thought I had locked this in my desk drawer! Edward,” she said to their father, “did you see what she’s been doing?”
Mr. Edelman looked up from his phone. “Hilary,” he said, “you know the doctor said you have to take a break!”
He had indeed. The doctor’s stern, doom-laden instructions—?and Hilary’s groans of pain—?stemmed from Hilary’s current condition, which stemmed from Hilary’s terrible addiction to the mobile phone she had received for her birthday. Despite her fervent promises to the contrary, she had devoted so much time online and texting her friends—?most of her waking hours, really—?that she had suddenly developed a whole collection of crippling physical ailments. Not only did she now require glasses to focus beyond a distance of two feet, but she had to undertake a punishing course of physical therapy just to be able to hold her head in a normal upright position. But the worst were her thumbs, which were now encased in soft casts to help their overexerted joints recover.
So when Emily had said to her parents, “The only single thing that I want for my birthday is a phone and you don’t have to get me anything else and all my friends are getting them and I just want to be able to contact them and I promise I’ll have more self-control than Hilary and I’m old enough,” they said, “We’re pretty sure you’re not.”